Ireland’s legendary Pirate Queen – Gráinne Ní Mháille

Fearless and formidable, Gráinne Ní Mháille (Grace O’Malley) ruled the land and sea on the west of Ireland and fought bravely for Irish independence against the British crown in the 16th century.

Ireland's legendary Pirate Queen Gráinne Ní Mháille

Grace O’Malley At Westport House

Born around the year 1530 in county Mayo, Gráinne Ní Mháille was the daughter of a Gaelic chieftain who controlled the South West of Mayo and its coast. Her family came from a seafaring background and owned a large shipping and trading business controlling the sea routes along the west and charged tax to mariners, fishermen and traders who sailed these routes.

In the 16th century women really had no place at sea. As a child she asked to join her father’s expedition to Spain but he naturally refused reasoning her long red hair would get caught in the ropes. So she defiantly cut off her hair to pass as a boy and to sneak on to her father’s ships. When her family found out they gave her the nickname Grainne Mhaol (meaning bald).

She married young to the head of the O’Flaherty Clan, but she wasn’t destined to live the life expected of her. Gráinne became very much the master of her own destiny. She took over her father’s company when he died and her husband’s land when he was killed in battle. She then remarried, divorced and even took on a lover.

In a time when women were effectively powerless she became incredibly powerful and even feared. As a women she was never officially a chieftain but she became a leader of men, taking control and fighting for what she believed in; independence, love and family. She ruled her lands with an iron fist, and became notorious around the Irish Coast, commanding a fleet of ships with around 200 men, raiding rival clans and merchants.

She had no love for the English Crown and fought to keep her lands independent and to protect her people from its reach. As her power and control grew the crown took notice she became under pressure to yield. When the Crown made a move to attack her castle on Clare Island she retaliated attacking English ships, even blockading the port at Galway for a time.

Ireland's legendary Pirate Queen Gráinne Ní Mháille

Heart of her kingdom Rockfleet castle Co. Mayo

Her fiery temper and lust for vengeance makes for some legendary tales. When she was refused admittance at the gates of Howth Castle, she kidnapped the Earl’s grandson. She only released him when the Earl promised to keep the gates open to unexpected visitors and to always set an extra place at the table.

When her lover Hugh de Lacy was murdered by a member of the MacMahon clan, she sought revenge. She captured their boats, killed those responsible and to top it off seized control of Doona Castle.

She was finally brought down by the Crown and stripped of her wealth, influence and lands. When she heard her brother and son had been captured she petitioned  the British and got a face to face meeting with Queen Elizabeth I. When standing before the Queen Gráinne refused to bow as she herself was queen of her own land and not a subject of England. The pair reached a truce and the Queen agreed to free her family and restore some of her lands.

About the Author

Ann Robinson
Has a passion for coastal heritage and maritime history. Loves sharing the best of the Irish coast online. Contact me or follow me on Twitter @AnnRobinson22